Cultural Neuroscience: Bridging Lab and Field (Redux)

Update 12/16/10: Link to Shinobu Kitayama and Ayse Uskul, “Culture, Mind, and the Brain: Current Evidence and Future Directions,”Ann Rev Psychol 62 (2011): 419–49.

Next month we will be posting an interview by Karen Frenkel with cultural psychologist Shinobu Kitayama, Director of the Center for Culture, Mind, and the Brain at the University of Michigan and one of the leaders in the field of cultural neuroscience.

In this post, we provide some very brief background on the discipline, as well as the concept of culture from two different perspectives (lab and field), and then mention some possible areas for future collaborations between anthropologists and cultural neuroscientists. References are included at end of post.

Brief background

Cultural neuroscience is an emerging, interdisciplinary field primarily rooted in cultural and cross-cultural psychology and cognitive and social neuroscience that focuses on the influence of culture on brain, mind, and behavior (Chiao & Ambady, 2007; Han & Northoff, 2008; Kitayama & Park, 2010).

The aim of cultural neuroscience is not to “reduce” culture into a description of genetic and neural processes at the expense of the characterization of emergent properties, nor is it intended to replace the language of culture with the language of neurons or molecules. The goal of a cultural neuroscience is empirically to shed light on the extent to which the cultural variation observable in human behavior and mental life is traceable to cultural variation at other levels of analysis and their interaction, including the biological and neural levels. (Chiao & Ambady, 2007, p. 240)

A recent talk by Joan Chiao of Northwestern University provides a good overview:

One year after Chiao and Ambady’s foundational paper was published, Shiyui Han and Georg Northoff (2008) covered the field for Nature Reviews Neuroscience. Anthropologist Daniel Lende responded with a very thoughtful commentary on the old site. [UPDATE 10/31/10: See also Greg Downey’s post “Escaping Orientalism in Cultural Psychology,” on unexamined assumptions about culture in East/West research design.]

I can’t do justice to either account via a blog summary here, but would like to point out that one of Dan’s main concerns is that “we have ‘culture’ and ‘brain’ without context, body, experience or behavior. Neural substrates and cultural cognition are a poor substitute for the role of the body, everyday practices, and potent symbols in our lives.”

Concepts of culture: Can this marriage be saved?

Culture means very different things to anthropologists and neuroscientists. The “culture” in cultural neuroscience, which takes place in laboratory settings, has been operationalized to mean something like a collective-level phenomenon consisting of a set of everyday practices reflecting primary cultural values  that are inscribed on the brain over time (Kitayama & Uskul, 2011).

Much of the research is based on cultural psychology’s distinction between individualistic (i.e., Western) and collectivistic societies (i.e., East Asian) societies (Triandis, 1995), or independent and interdependent selves (Markus & Kitayama, 1991) [1]. Neural correlates of these characterizations have been robustly observed and compared across groups via methodologies like fMRI and/or ERP.

A thoughtful paper on prospects and challenges of the field by neuroscientist Suparna Choudhury of Max Planck and cultural psychiatrist Laurence Kirmayer of McGill appeared in Joan Chiao’s handbook Cultural Neuroscience (2009).

Choudhury and Kirmayer’s fundamental issue with cultural neuroscience is the uncritical adaptation of cultural categories (East Asian vs.Western) from the cultural psychology literature and, more generally, the very concept of culture.

Just as a population is a bundle of individual reaction norms, culture in a globalizing world is a bundle of particularities  (material and intangible) “that a person holds in common with other individuals forming a social group.”

Cultures are not . . .  static, bounded entities that denote homogeneity and internal cohesion within groups. Rather, cultures are dynamic, permeable, and changeable systems, with internal tensions and contradictions, which individuals actively use for self-fashioning and social positioning. As a result, in the contemporary world, most individuals participate in multiple cultural systems or streams of influence and show ways of thinking, perceiving, and acting derived from these multiple systems depending on their goals, their relationships with others, the social setting, and their social status or position. (Choudhury & Kirmayer, 2009, p. 268)

In their introduction to the Asian Journal of Social Psychology’s  special issue on cultural neuroscience, Shinobu Kitayama and Steve Tompson basically agree that the culture is a “multifaceted concept” and further argue that “[it] is not at all clear which aspects of culture may be significant in cultural neuroscience and why” (Kitayama & Tompson, 2010, 94).

Where do we go from here?

At then end of Dan’s post, he presented the following challenge:

[T]he anthropologist often goes from critique to critique, and freezes when asked, Well, if you don’t agree, how would you test culture using neuroimaging?

Choudhury and Kirmayer suggested that future studies of cultural neuroscience focus on “the particularities of culture within participants’ ways of life.” Here’s a list that incorporates their suggestions and adds a few others:

  • diet
  • religious beliefs
  • early experiences  (parenting styles)
  • emotion repertoires
  • rituals
  • work
  • socioeconomic status
  • adolescent rites of passage
  • migration and acculturation status
  • ideas about self and others

Incidentally, the cultural neuroscience literature has some fascinating examples of systematic differences based on specific routines and beliefs. For example, the brains of abacus masters and London cab drivers  substantially differ from controls in areas associated with spatio-visual processing and spatial navigation, respectively (Hanakawa et al., 2003; Maguire et al., 2000). See also Uskul, Nisbett, & Kitayama [2008] on farming, fishing, and herding communities in Turkey and Shihui Han et al. (2008) on religious beliefs.

Finally, anthropologists who are interested in working with cultural neuroscientists might consider attending the 2011 Summer Institute for Cultural Neuroscience, hosted by Shinobu Kitayama at the University of Michigan (applications are due in March). Future work on brain/mind/environment interactions that combines field and lab observations should be mutually enriching.


[1] Americans and Europeans are considered “Westerners.” People from Japan, Korea, and China are considered East Asian. Nisbett theorizes that the differences originated from distinct systems of thought – holistic vs. analytic (see, e.g., Nisbett, Peng, Choi & Norenzaya, 2001; Nisbett & Masuda, 2003).


Ames, D. L., & Fiske, S. T. (2010). Cultural neuroscience. Asian Journal of Social Psychology, 13, 72-82.

Chiao, J., & Ambady, N. (2007). Cultural neuroscience: Parsing universality and diversity across levels of analysis. In S. Kitayama & D. Cohen (Eds.), Handbook of cultural psychology (pp. 237-254). New York: Guilford Press.

Chiao, J. Y. (2009). Cultural neuroscience: A once and future discipline. Progress in Brain Research, 178, 287-304.

Choudhury, S., & Kirmayer, L. (2009). Cultural neuroscience and psychopathology: Prospects for cultural psychiatry. Progress in Brain Research, 178, 263–283.

Downey, G. (2009, April 30). Escaping Orientalism in cultural psychology [Web log message]. Retrieved from

Han, S., Mao, L., Gu, X., Zhu, Y., Ge, J., Ma, Y. (2008). Neural consequences of religious belief on self-referential processing. Social Neuroscience, 3, 1–15.

Han, S., & Northoff, G. (2008). Opinion: Culture-sensitive neural substrates of human cognition: A transcultural neuroimaging approach. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 9, 646-654.

Hanakawa, T., Honda, M., Okada, T., Fukuyama, H., & Shibasaki, H. (2003). Neural correlates underlying calculation in abacus experts: A functional magnetic resonance imaging study. Neuroimage, 19(2), 296-307.

[Abstract] Experts of abacus operation demonstrate extraordinary ability in mental calculation. There is psychological evidence that abacus experts utilize a mental image of an abacus to remember and manipulate large numbers in solving problems; however, the neural correlates underlying this expertise are unknown. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, we compared the neural correlates associated with three mental-operation tasks (numeral, spatial, verbal) among six experts in abacus operations and eight nonexperts. In general, there was more involvement of neural correlates for visuospatial processing (e.g., right premotor and parietal areas) for abacus experts during the numeral mental-operation task. Activity of these areas and the fusiform cortex was correlated with the size of numerals used in the numeral mental-operation task. Particularly, the posterior superior parietal cortex revealed significantly enhanced activity for experts compared with controls during the numeral mental-operation task. Comparison with the other mental-operation tasks indicated that activity in the posterior superior parietal cortex was relatively specific to computation in 2-dimensional space. In conclusion, mental calculation of abacus experts is likely associated with enhanced involvement of the neural resources for visuospatial information processing in 2-dimensional space.

Kitayama, S., & Park, J. (2010). Cultural neuroscience of the self: Understanding the social grounding of the brain. SCAN, 5(2–3), 119–129.

Kitayama, S., & Tompson, S. (2010). Envisioning the future of cultural neuroscience. Asian Journal of Social Psychology, 13, 92-101.

Kitayama, S., & Uskul, A. (2011). Culture, mind, and the brain: Current evidence and future directions. Annual Review in Psychology, 62, 419–449.

Current research on culture focuses on independence and interdependence and documents numerous East-West psychological differences with an increasing emphasis placed on cognitive mediating mechanisms. Lost in this literature is a time-honored idea of culture as a collective process composed of cross-generationally transmitted values and associated behavioral patterns (i.e., practices). A new model of neuro-culture interaction proposed here addresses this conceptual gap by hypothesizing that the brain serves as a crucial site that accumulates effects of cultural experience, insofar as neural connectivity is likely modified through sustained engagement in cultural practices. Thus, culture is “embrained” and, moreover, this process requires no cognitive mediation. The model is supported in a review of empirical evidence regarding (a) collective-level factors involved in both production and adoption of cultural values and practices and (b) neural changes that result from engagement in cultural practices. Future directions of research on culture, mind, and the brain are discussed.

Lende, D. (2008, August 14). Cultural neuroscience [Web log message]. Retrieved from

Maguire, E. A., Gadian, D. G., Johnsrude, I. S., Good, C. D., Ashburner, J., Frackowiak, R. S., & Frith, C. D. (2000). Navigation-related structural change in the hippocampi of taxi drivers. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA, 97(8), 4398-4403.

[Abstract] Structural MRIs of the brains of humans with extensive navigation experience, licensed London taxi drivers, were analyzed and compared with those of control subjects who did not drive taxis. The posterior hippocampi of taxi drivers were significantly larger relative to those of control subjects. A more anterior hippocampal region was larger in control subjects than in taxi drivers. Hippocampal volume correlated with the amount of time spent as a taxi driver (positively in the posterior and negatively in the anterior hippocampus). These data are in accordance with the idea that the posterior hippocampus stores a spatial representation of the environment and can expand regionally to accommodate elaboration of this representation in people with a high dependence on navigational skills. It seems that there is a capacity for local plastic change in the structure of the healthy adult human brain in response to environmental demands.

Markus, H. R., & Kitayama, S. (1991). Culture and the self: Implications for cognition, emotion, and motivation. Psychological Review, 98, 224–253.

Ng, S. H., Han, S., Mao, L., & Lai, J. C. L. (2010). Dynamic bicultural brains; fMRI study of their flexible neural representation of self and significant others in response to culture primes. Asian Journal of Social Psychology, 13, 83-91.

Nisbett, R. E., Peng, K., Choi, I., & Norenzaya, A. (2001). Culture and systems of thought: Holistic versus analytic cognition. Psychological Review, 108, 291–310.

Nisbett, R. E.,  & Masuda, T. (2003). Attending holistically vs. analytically: Comparing the context sensitivity of Japanese and Americans. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81, 922–934.

Triandis, H. C. (1995). Individualism and collectivism. Boulder, CA: Westview Press.

Uskul, A. K., Kitayama, S., & Nisbett, R. E. (2008). Ecocultural basis of cognition: Farmers and fishermen are more holistic than herders. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA, 105(25), 8552-8556.

Zhou, H., & Cacioppo, J. (2010). Culture and the brain: Opportunities and obstacles. Asian Journal of Social Psychology, 13, 59-71.

“Where Do you Think Neuroscience Is Going?” (NRN Interview with Kavli Prize Winners)

This was one of the final questions posed by Claudia Wiedemann of Nature Reviews Neuroscience to the  Kavli prize winners in neuroscience, James Rothman of Yale, Richard Scheller of Genentech, and Thomas Südhof of Stanford  (NRN 11, 669-673).

For me, the biggest unknown is neither at the molecular level, nor at the systems level, as much as there is still to be found at both. There must be a basic logic at the level of local circuitry that enables correlations and comparisons to be made with weighted outcomes (according to emotional tone). That is fundamentally what a brain does. For example, cortex has the same remarkable multi-layered histology throughout, and cortex anywhere seems to be able to differentiate, depending on its inputs, to assume the normal function of any other region. I know that oversimplifies, but it is essentially true and totally remarkable. The logic at the circuitry level that permits this is a complete mystery. – James Rothman, Fergus F. Wallace Professor of Biomedical Sciences; Chair, Department of Cell Biology, Yale University

I believe that we are entering an age in which diseases of the nervous system will be approachable from a much more mechanistic viewpoint. This will happen due to a combination of molecular and cellular studies, as described above, along with human genetics studies. It will be very gratifying to help people with disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease, depression, schizophrenia, spinal cord injuries and stroke. – Richard Scheller, Executive Vice President of Research and Early Development, Genentech

[T]he future of neuroscience is to use molecular understanding as the basis on which to build a systems view, and not the opposite way around. Thomas Südhof, Avram Goldstein Professor and Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, Stanford University School of Medicine

A Conversation with Martha Farah on Neuroethics

Science writer Karen A. Frenkel interviews neuroscientist Martha Farah for the FPR.

Martha J. Farah is the Walter H. Annenberg Professor of Natural Sciences and Director, Center for Neuroscience and Society at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the author and editor of many books about neuroscience and has received many awards. Most recently, the Association for Psychological Science honored her with its 2009 Lifetime Achievement Award. Below, Professor Farah discusses neuroethics in general and responds to questions inspired by her new book, Neuroethics: An Introduction with Readings (MIT Press, August, 2010).

KAF: You’ve been involved in cognitive neuroscience since its beginning three decades ago. What is the greatest change in the field you have witnessed during those years?

MJF: It’s hard to point to just one thing, so much has happened in the last 30 years: functional imaging of cognition, computational models linking single neuron behavior with the functioning of large-scale networks in the brain, the extension of the cognitive neuroscience approach into the study of social and emotional functions. . . .  Maybe the best way to answer the question is to say this: We went from having neuroscience and cognitive science as two separate disciplines to having a truly integrated study of mind and brain.

KAF: You raise many ethical questions in your new book. Do you think the differences between Western and East Asian cultures, which cultural neuroscience literature characterizes as “individualistic” or “independent” (Western), and “collectivistic” or “interdependent” (East Asian), yield different ideas about what constitutes ethical neuroscience?

MJF: That’s an interesting question, to which I wish I knew the answer. Although there are Asian scientists writing on neuroethics, I have not seen these differences crop up, but I also have not been especially attuned to them. It seems clear that this issue of individuality and self-determination does figure in some of the arguments in neuroethics in the West, for example the ethics of brain enhancement. Proponents of enhancement tend to argue that the decision of whether to enhance one’s own brain should be a matter of personal choice, and emphasize the benefits to society of having individuals who are smarter, cheerier, or whatever. It would be interesting to know if these arguments are less persuasive in the East.

KAF: Why should neuroscience students, who intend to conduct research, be concerned with neuroethical issues?

MJF: I don’t think we can do a complete “division of labor” on science and ethics, and assume that our colleagues over in the IRB (Institutional Review Board, which reviews research on human subjects for risk/benefit issues) or the Bioethics Department will worry about the ethics so we don’t have to. Everything we do as scientists – the choice of research question, the methods we use, the way we communicate the results and, in some cases, the way we partner with private interests – all have ethical implications. To be sure, for some topics and at some stages of development these implications will be quite distant and removed from the current scientific realities. But to recognize the ethically consequential decisions and to be prepared for them, we need to have some background. That’s why I encourage neuroscience graduate students to learn about neuroethics.

KAF: Why should lay people be interested?

MJF: Because ready or not, neuroscience is increasingly influencing our lives. People need to be informed consumers of neurotechnology and of neuroscience ideas and claims. We have TV doctors pushing brain imaging as the ultimate way to diagnose mental disorders and even assess marital compatibility. We have school systems investing their limited budgets in supposedly brain-based educational programs. As a neuroscientist, I am very skeptical about these products and services. Unfortunately, most people know nothing about neuroscience and just say “it sounds scientific, it must be good.” A greater familiarity with what neuroscience can and cannot do would protect people by, at the very minimum, leading them to ask some questions before buying, like “what is the evidence that this works?”

The lack of public understanding can work both ways, making people gullible and accepting, but also leading them to reject worthwhile options because those options are unfamiliar and sound like science fiction or Huxley’s Brave New World. For example, some people will not even consider medication for themselves or their kids to help with psychiatric disorders, because the idea of changing one’s brain chemistry sounds wrong, or because they consider such medicines in the same category as street drugs.

KAF: In your chapter “Better Brains,” you write about the neuroethics of neuroenhancement and its inevitability. Why is it inevitable and what are the pros and cons?

MJF: I think it’s inevitable because human nature leads us to try to improve ourselves and to look for shortcuts, and neuroenhancement plays to both of those desires. Early adopters will be strivers with low risk aversion, but once those types start openly using enhancements, then – assuming no horrible side effects show up – the rest of us will say “why not, let’s give it a try,” or even, “I don’t want to, but with everyone else at work doing it, I had better also to keep my job.”

You can see this kind of progression in the history of plastic surgery. Initially it was not for enhancement at all, only for repairing injured soldiers with gruesome facial wounds. When surgery started being done for purely cosmetic reasons, most people thought it was weird or downright wrong. But gradually it gained acceptance and now it’s commonplace.

People have discovered that some of the drugs used to treat neuropsychiatric disorders also affect normal healthy individuals. The most common example of this is the use of ADHD meds by college students. These students report that the meds improve their attention and memory, helping them study more effectively. Drugs used to treat depression and Alzheimer’s disease also seem to have subtle positive effects on mood and cognition in healthy individuals, although their side effects usually outweigh their enhancing effect, so they are not popular for enhancement.  Down the line we may see nondrug treatments used for brain enhancement, for example, transcranial magnetic stimulation and transcranial direct current stimulation. These methods involve different ways of creating weak electrical currents in the brain, and laboratory research has shown that they can enhance some abilities in normal people.

On pros and cons. . . .  The first con that comes to my mind is health risk. These drugs and devices are not tested by normal subjects using them long-term. In particular, most ADHD meds carry a certain risk for addiction, especially when not used for treating ADHD. But there are lots of other risks and worries associated with brain enhancement, including fairness – does it give an unfair edge? Will only the wealthy get to use them? And the risk that people will start to feel compelled to enhance, once a sizable portion of their fellow students or workers are doing so. As for pros, well, assuming it is safe, who wouldn’t want to be smarter, happier, and so on? And wouldn’t it be better for society as a whole to have everyone solving problems more effectively and walking around in a good mood? What if we could enhance compassion? It’s not necessarily all about enhancing oneself at the expense of other people’s positions.

KAF: What is the greatest mystery that neuroscientists have yet to solve?

MJF: Consciousness. I think that would be every neuroscientist’s answer. Where different neuroscientists diverge is on the question of whether we’ll ever be able to solve it. Some are working on the problem with a good deal of optimism, and seem to be saying, “Just give us time, we’re getting there but it may take a while.” In that camp I would put the late Francis Crick.  Others are less optimistic. I wouldn’t say I am 100 percent convinced that we’ll never solve it, but I don’t see even the smallest glimmerings of a start. I fully expect to live and die never understanding how the heck this conscious mind thing that is me is related to the material world.

KAF: What do you think the most exciting area of neuroscience research will be in the next twenty years? Fifty years?

MJF: I think there are so many different fronts in neuroscience where exciting progress is being made, but one place where the learning curve seems incredibly steep is the development of neural prosthetics and brain-machine interfaces. It would not surprise me if we have some fairly significant new ways of altering brain function in humans twenty years from now, using deep brain stimulation and if, in fifty years, we have chips that augment natural brain function and allow us to enhance in ways very different from drugs.

KAF: Thank you so much for your time.

MJF: It was a pleasure Karen. Thanks for the fun and stimulating questions.